Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and LiteratureSpring 2016
A Memory of Flowers
By Sandra M. Odell
Benjamin picked at his ragged cuticles.
“Did you ever read that book? That flowers book?”
Ellen found herself playing with her wedding band. She laced her fingers together and set her hands neatly on her lap.
“Flowers for Algernon.”
They sat on a stone bench near the flower beds in the back garden. Stair steps of red and purple tulips caught sunlight in their petal cups. From somewhere near-by came the putter of a lawnmower, the laughter of children.
“Yeah. I’m that Algernon guy.”
Every week Benjamin made the same observation, and every week Ellen’s heart broke a little more when she reminded him, “Algernon was the mouse. You’re thinking of Charlie.”
He nodded. “Yeah. That Charlie guy. I’m him.”
Levi, Benjamin’s nurse, appeared in the dining room window. He looked at Ellen, tapped his wristwatch. She nodded. Benjamin began to rock on the bench, still picking at his fingers.
“I used to be stupid, see, and then the doctors made me smart. They did, and when I got smart I knew all sorts of stuff. But I didn’t have a mouse. Did I?”
He frowned, watery blue eyes scanning the border of box trees that edged the back yard.
“What was the mouse’s name?”
Every damn week for the last eight years. The fingers of Ellen’s right hand found her wedding ring and began to twist it back and forth again.
“Yeah,that guy. The mouse.”
She sighed. “Flowers for Algernon is fiction, dear. It’s not real.”
“It is. The doctors gave me shots to make me smart, see, then I got stupid again. That’s why I can’t remember things like -” The rocking slowed, stopped. “- things. “
Like their wedding anniversary, how to play cribbage, that she adored lilacs and being read to in bed.
“Don’t be silly, dear. Doctors can’t make you smarter with a shot or a pill.“
He began to rock once more, brown slippers digging into the pea gravel.
“I was real smart, like science smart, and math smart. I could do adding, and times stuff, and knew how to draw.“
Ellen swallowed memories of summer vacations in Barcelona, lounging with a thermos of iced tea and a romance novel while he rediscovered the landscapes in watercolor.
“You still know how to draw. You have your pictures on the refrigerator, and Levi takes you to art class every Tuesday. You like art class, don’t you?”
Benjamin lowered his head and shrugged.
Ellen fished a crumpled tissue from her dress pocket and dabbed at his bloody fingers.
“You need to stop that. I have Disney Band-Aids. Would you like a Band-Aid?”
Without looking up, Benjamin nodded and held out both hands. Ellen bandaged four fingers, then gave him one of his favorite butterscotch hard candies. She’d fallen into the habit of bringing both during her weekly visits.
“There. How’s that? All better now?”
Benjamin sucked on the candy and wiggled his fingers as if playing an invisible piano. He’d played piano for the guests at Heidi’s wedding, Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and Irving Berlin’s “Always”. Then he’d taken their daughter on a turnaround the dance floor, every bit as handsome in his tuxedo as he’d been on their own wedding day.
“I guess.” He looked at her and frowned. “Hey, don’t cry. Please don’t cry. Why are you crying?”
Ellen wiped her eyes with a clean section of tissue.
“I forgot my sunglasses and the sun hurts my eyes.”
“Oh.” Benjamin looked at her hands and tapped her wedding band.
“That’s a ring. Did you get married?”
Ellen hesitated then removed the gold band and tucked it in her pocket along with the tissue. A weight lifted from her heart, one that had held her down for a long time. Eight years in fact. If she slipped off her shoes, she would lift like a bird into the sky.
“He gave it to me a long time ago.”
“He must be a good friend.”
She did her best to smile.
“A very good friend.”
Benjamin looked at his feet.
“Is he stupid like me?”
“You’re not stupid.”
Benjamin scooted to the end of the bench. Ellen closed her eyes and sighed. She turned her face to the sun, folded her frustration like a silk handkerchief and tucked it away. Finally she opened her eyes and took his hand.
“No need to apologize, dear. I shouldn’t have snapped like that. I’m sorry.”
She watched a bee turning lazy circles amongst the tulips.
“My friend is tall and handsome. He loves music and art.”
Benjamin gave her a shy smile.
“I like art.”
“I know. And he’s smart like you, too. He studied human development.”
Benjamin scrunched his face.
“Development. All sorts of stuff about the body and what makes people smart. He was so smart, in fact, that he –”
The admission caught at the back of her throat.
“- he discovered a way to make himself smarter.”
Benjamin’s eyes widened.
Ellen nodded. Other memories fell through the cracks in her heart and settled in the pit of her stomach.
“Maybe he could make me smart again.”
Oh, if only he could.
“Maybe someday. “
They sat together in silence, watching clouds unravel overhead, until Levi came out of the house.
“Hey, Benjamin. Time for lunch. We got fried chicken, and mac and cheese, with cupcakes for dessert.”
Benjamin grinned from ear to ear.
“I like cupcakes.”
The nurse grinned.
“Come on, then. Everybody’s waiting.”
Benjamin stood. He turned to Ellen.
“Okay. Bye. I’m going to eat cupcakes.”
Ellen picked up her purse.
“Have a nice lunch, dear.”
She waited until she was alone before getting to her feet. She pulled her wedding ring out of her pocket and slipped it back on her finger, accepting the weight and the joy of memories and weekly visits.
“Good-bye, Charlie. See you next week.”
Sandra lives in Washington State with her husband, sons, and a grumpy orange cat. Her work has appeared in such venues as Daily Science Fiction, Galaxy's Edge, and Crossed Genres. A stroke survivor, she continues to struggle with PTSD and severe Dissociative Identity Disorder. She is determined to win the battles.